Monday, August 2, 2010
I tend to think of Jaws as more of a phenomenon than a film. The first movie to open on hundreds of screens at once and become an instant blockbuster, thanks to good word of mouth and a huge national marketing campaign, Steven Spielberg’s second theatrical release gave Hollywood its first glimpse of the Holy Grail it’s been chasing ever since: high-concept tentpole pictures audiences embrace even if we pointy-headed critics hate them.
Then I’ll see Jaws again, as I did last night, and remember what a good summer movie it is. Jaws doles out its thrills at beautifully timed intervals, starting with its classic opening sequence, which stays with a bonfire on the beach just long enough to establish the mood, then follows golden girl Chrissie over the dunes and into the ocean, where things go suddenly and horribly wrong as the great white shark attacks. Time and again, Spielberg lulls us into a state of semi-relaxation only to scare the bejeezus out of us, making each shock land with real force. Even knowing what’s coming as well I do by now, I still recoil in pleasurable fear every time that shark rears up out of the water.
Spielberg directed Duel for TV four years before he made Jaws, and he seems to expand here on what he learned there. The shark is essentially Duel’s implacable trucker, only underwater and with a clearer motivation.
That clarity of motivation makes the shark the most believable character in the film, for all its near-supernatural powers. There’s never any doubt why it’s hunting: It’s either hungry or protecting itself. The humans’ motivation can be murkier in the often-rewritten script, like when the mayor insists that Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) keep the beach open for the sake of the town’s economy – wouldn’t he have known that gaining a reputation as a snack shack for sharks would hurt them a lot more than closing for a few days? Or when Chief Brody insists on going after the shark with Quint the fisherman (Robert Shaw) and Hooper the marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss), even though he’s so terrified of the water that he can’t even swim. Wouldn’t that make him less handy on a boat than, say, just about any other able-bodied adult on the island? And why does Quint, that seasoned salt, drop his guard so completely, getting drunk and encouraging the other two to do the same, just when they need to be at their most alert as they wait for the shark to return?
But if the characters are on the sketchy side, there’s real energy in the way Dreyfuss’s hyperactive young hot dog bounces off Scheider’s cautious family man. The two actors seem to enjoy their byplay too, judging by the smirk Scheider tries to hide as Hooper busts in uninvited on the Brodys. Quint’s unflappable calm in the face of catastrophe provides a nice contrast to the other two, and Shaw makes his speech about the USS Indianapolis unforgettable. Most of the other actors and extras are pretty shaky, though, so drama like the panic felt by crowd on the beach is generated far more by the camera work, the editing, and John Williams’ brilliant score than it is by the actors.
Jaws has more in common with an ingenious little indie like [Rec] than it does with the bloated blockbusters coming out of Hollywood these days. But it’s much less gory than most of today’s horror movies, maybe for the same reason that it implies the shark’s presence far more than it shows the beast in action. The production’s three mechanical sharks are famous for having malfunctioned, forcing Spielberg to find alternatives to filming them. I don’t know whether something similar kept him from lingering on shark-mangled bodies, but I can tell you that watching Brody hyperventilate while dictating a drily factual description of Chrissie’s corpse is a lot more affecting than ogling a mess of latex body parts could ever be.
It must be hard to make a good scary movie even with a big budget and an army of special effects wizards. But overcoming challenges like the ones Spielberg faced to accomplish what he does here, and all for just $9 million (about $37 million in 2010 dollars)? Now, that’s directing.